Take a good look at the faces in your classroom, youth group or Bible study. Will one of those bright-eyed students be a Lutheran teacher, principal, pastor, or another church worker? Lutheran schools face a dwindling number of individuals who want to pursue the spiritual discipline and training needed by our church body. The various circumstances of life that lead teachers, pastors and others to leave the parish also continues to plague our church worker force. What can you do to recruit and retain more workers for Lutheran churches and schools?
The problem is recruiting Lutheran university candidates to the teaching profession and retaining those already in Lutheran teaching.
Lutheran churches and schools seek to hire from a competent and professional pool of college and seminary graduates to fill church work positions. Lutheran schools are unique in that, historically, teachers in Lutheran schools attended Lutheran universities that are a part of the Concordia University System (CUS). Graduates from the CUS who have completed the prescribed course of study for a teaching certificate and religious coursework earn a Lutheran Teachers Diploma. Throughout LCMS school history, commissioned teachers have primarily staffed Lutheran schools. Although the latest economic recession has produced serious challenges for many churches and schools, the Lutheran school system nation-wide continues to grow (“What a Way,” 2009). However, between 2005 and 2009, the number of CUS students enrolled in church work programs declined by 23% (“What a Way,” 2009). The problem is recruiting Lutheran university candidates to the church work profession and retaining those already in Lutheran parishes.
With nearly 50 percent of all teachers leaving the profession within the first five years, it has become a challenge for Lutheran schools to find ways to recruit teachers. In the LCMS school system, only 28% of teachers, out of the approximately 21,000 total, have a Lutheran Teachers Diploma (LTD) (2017-2018 Statistical Analysis, 2018). Common reasons for Lutheran school educators to leave the classroom were pressure to earn more money and new career choices (Laabs, 2008). At the core of our Lutheran churches and schools is the value of faith-filled workers who instill moral and religious character into the lives of their students. There continues to be a record number of children and adults to teach and serve, but a shortage of qualified teachers, pastors and other workers.
During the fall of 2012, I was able to conduct a study to investigate recruitment and retention in Lutheran schools. The purpose of my research was to identify strategies to increase recruitment into Lutheran teacher programs and examine retention of existing teachers. I sought to examine the personal stories of beginning and pre-service teachers to identify activities through which the teachers felt recruited or called into their vocation and reasons teachers continue in the profession.
All 22 individuals eagerly told of their desires and passions for Lutheran schools.
To better understand and study the nature of teacher recruitment and retention efforts in the LCMS, I intentionally selected individuals for the study. I had the privilege to speak with a wide variety of Lutheran educators around central Texas. An invitation was sent out to novice and veteran teachers within a 45-mile radius of Concordia University Texas. Twelve teachers volunteered to be interviewed and share their personal stories of recruitment to and retention in Lutheran schools. There was also a group of ten students from Concordia University Texas who shared their thoughts in a focus group. All 22 individuals eagerly told of their desires and passions for Lutheran schools.
All of the teachers and university students were asked a series of questions related to their recruitment experience into Lutheran school education. Each individual told of their personal calling into ministry with one commonality: none of them had actually been recruited. Significant events or relationships with people who God used to lead them to Lutheran school teaching were evident, but none had been recruited by a CUS school or program. Recruitment was exclusively found to happen person to person and through significant life events. Multiple exposures on a Concordia campus were also often cited, but the most common recruiter was a person or event that God used to lead them to school ministry.
Spreading the Good News of the Gospel was a significant motivator to becoming a Lutheran teacher.
Spreading the Good News of the Gospel was a significant motivator to becoming a Lutheran teacher. While some teachers had gone to Lutheran schools as children, others did not, but all of those who were interviewed had a deep desire to continue to share the love of Christ with children and teens. More powerful than a university recruiter making weekly calls, the command of the Great Commission paired with a positive and influential Lutheran school advocate was the most common predictor of teacher recruitment.
Both beginning and veteran Lutheran educators indicated that the motivation to continue teaching in Lutheran schools was linked to job satisfaction and intrinsic motivation. The teachers interviewed shared a deep satisfaction from sharing their faith. For many, the reason they became Lutheran educators and the reason they stayed for more than 10 years was the distinct Lutheran faith they shared. The impact that Jesus makes on students’ lives at Lutheran schools keeps teachers in the ministry for many years.
The teachers interviewed shared a deep satisfaction from sharing their faith.
Many more practical reasons for continuing in ministry were also reported by teachers. Feelings of value and respect by administrators made a positive impact on teacher retention. Principals who made their Lutheran schools feel like an extended family also had teachers who wanted to keep teaching. The role that church and school leaders played in the day to day lives of Lutheran educators may not be apparent, but churches and schools that created a safe and gratifying family environment for their teachers had happier teachers who stayed in the ministry for many years.
Although the common perception and reality of serving in a Lutheran school is a salary that is substandard to public teachers, it did not appear that pay had a negative impact on Lutheran teacher retention. While all teachers required adequate compensation for their efforts, it was not a reason for leaving their school. Many of the teachers interviewed made no mention of inadequate salary, while all of them did mention their belief that God would always and had always provided for their needs.
For Our Future
Many of the respondents’ … ideas about Lutheran schools were built through teaching and sharing of faith that someone else took the time to provide.
Recruiting and retaining teachers in Lutheran schools requires relationship building, an understanding of vocation, and a personal desire to teach and share personal faith. Teachers in the research study expressed many stories and perspectives concerning their own recruitment and retention into the Lutheran teaching profession. Great satisfaction was expressed when participants described the people they had relationships with and how they were encouraged to be a Lutheran teacher. Many of the respondents’ strong relationships with and ideas about Lutheran schools were built through teaching and sharing of faith that someone else took the time to provide. Everyone in the research study made remarks about the importance of teaching and sharing their faith with others and the great impact it had on their decision to become a Lutheran educator. The fervor for this was reported enthusiastically by all, no matter their age or years of experience.
The children who will become the next generation of Lutheran school teachers and administrators must clearly understand the nature of God’s call into ministry and see positive examples of such.
One very important quality each of the participating teachers referred to was their deep understanding of their Christian vocation in teaching. The teachers mentioned their understanding of the Divine Call from God and that it was a factor in recruiting them to and keeping them in Lutheran schools. The schools and churches of the LCMS must continue to teach pointedly about vocation. Students who attend Lutheran schools and churches see Christian vocation every day, exemplified by their teachers, pastors, Sunday school teachers, DCEs, and other church workers. The children who will become the next generation of Lutheran school educators and administrators must clearly understand the nature of God’s call into ministry and see positive examples of such. Bible studies and Sunday school and classroom lessons that focus on Kingdom workers will help students begin to see the opportunities available to share their faith and the Gospel.
Motivation that related to teacher retention focused on teachers enjoying the safe, community atmosphere present in their Lutheran schools. The close-knit relationships and working conditions in these schools led the teachers interviewed to keep teaching in the Lutheran school system. Lutheran school administrators must do as much as they can to reinforce community at their school and to build close-knit relationships amongst their staff. Providing teachers with social engagements outside of school or team building activities during staff development would provide the teachers with outside sources of motivation while building on self-actualizing feelings. Together, these kinds of activities build an atmosphere that could attract and keep teachers at that school.
...while the salary may not be great, there are other things that could be done to provide strong support for their teachers that could compensate for inadequate pay.
Lutheran schools should be aware of the unique relationship between support and pay. Although this should not be taken as a claim to freeze or lower pay for Lutheran teachers, it should be important for administrators and directing boards in Lutheran schools and churches to know that while the salary may not be great, there are other things that could be done to provide strong support for their teachers that could help compensate for inadequate pay. Awareness of job satisfaction would give church and school leaders strong evidence of the relationship between pay and support and that both are needed to keep teachers long term.
There continues to be an initiative within the LCMS and CUS to strengthen the financial incentives provided to aspiring church workers, including Lutheran teachers. Along with that financial support, church leaders need to embark on a more personal quest to train existing church workers to talk to and encourage young people around them to go into church work. While the financial support was mentioned as important, the motivation and personal satisfaction that came from personal interaction was overwhelmingly more important to recruiting and retaining teachers. Specific training on what to say, how to be encouraging, and where to direct further questions could have a very positive impact on attracting more Lutheran educators.
Recruitment was a major theme and although participants were not intentionally recruited into Lutheran teaching by CUS recruiters, they did have people and events that led them to teach in a Lutheran school. Many of the people in the lives of the participating teachers were close family, friends, or former teachers who provided them with spiritual and moral support. Spiritual convictions led the respondents to a desire to give back in the same way and teach and share their own personal faith to others. The personal relationships and spiritual nature of the encouragement led respondents to feelings of inspiration and encouragement, which not only reinforced their plans to teach in a Lutheran school, but also to stay in a Lutheran school long term.
A clear understanding of vocation led these teachers to believe strongly that God desired them to teach and remain in teaching.
The teachers interviewed were motivated by their faith and personal call into the teaching ministry. A clear understanding of vocation led these teachers to believe strongly that God desired them to teach and remain in teaching. The positive relationships that teachers made with students, parents, and peers also had a retaining effect. Experienced teachers were motivated to stay in the Lutheran teaching field because of the strong support they received from parents, families, and especially their administrators. Strong support led to deep job satisfaction.
Throughout my research, what struck me the most was that each person I talked to had at least one important person in their life who made a difference in recruiting them for the teaching ministry or retaining them in Lutheran schools. From the youngest to the oldest teacher interviewed, each one remembered their influential person. For me, the person that had a direct influence in recruiting me into Lutheran schools was my pastor’s wife, who was also my high school history and English teacher. She took time out of her day to encourage me often and provide opportunities for me to explore the teaching ministry. She was definitely an instrument God used in recruiting me to Lutheran schools.
Each worker in God’s Kingdom must think, "Who will replace me?” It very well may be the faces in your classroom!
To recruit and retain Lutheran church workers in schools and churches of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, everyone from teachers, pastors, parents, schools, and universities must be involved in the process. Relationships between workers and students must remain strong and the importance of strong spiritual convictions must not be diminished. Each Lutheran teacher, pastor, or other church worker has the ability and privilege to recruit others into the field. God has called church workers to plant not only the seeds of faith in students and children, but also seeds of vocation. Each worker in God’s Kingdom must think, "Who will replace me?” It very well may be the faces in your classroom! Lutheran churches and schools are educating the next generation of teachers and leaders and we must do everything possible to encourage ministry as a noble and Divine Call. Although God calls workers into the harvest field, current workers must continue to plant the seeds that will produce and sustain future teachers to teach and share their faith for generations.
1991-2010 Statistics, Lutheran School Portal.
2017-2018 Statistical analysis. Retrieved from: https://live-luthed.pantheonsite.io/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/2018-Statistics-Analysis-Report.pdf
Laabs, J. C.. “Today’s Lutheran educator: Who will be here tomorrow?” Lutheran Education, 142(1), 61–62, 2008
Nafzger, S. An Introduction to The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Concordia Publishing House, 2009.
What a Way Case Document. (2009). www.whataway.org.